Slimline tonic for the shape of UK business

August 4, 1995

There is rather less of George Bain than there used to be - three-and-a-half stone less to be precise, after a highly successful slimming campaign by the principal of London Business School.

But the new slimline version could be set for a considerably enhanced public profile and influence over this year as chair of the Institute for Public Policy Research Commission on Public Policy and British Business.

The commission, pulling in such luminaries as Lord Hollick, David Sainsbury and Boss Group chairman Bob Bischof, will be working over the next year on a series of themes: research and innovation, training and education, finance and investment incentives, infrastructure, corporate framework, employment policy and macroeconomic policy.

"Each group will be supervised by one or two commissioners as it works through the issues. There will be a big conference to pull themes together and debate what we have found, followed by the issue of the report in September 1996," says Professor Bain.

That date is probably a few months before the next General Election, timing which he says, "is not in any way accidental".

There is little doubt that its conclusions will be watched with considerable interest by the Labour front bench.

But Professor Bain emphasises that the commission is an IPPR, not an official Labour, operation - unlike the Borrie commission on social justice set up by John Smith as party leader. The slightly distanced position epitomises his relationship with British politics. While never making any secret of his centre-left sympathies he has never been a Labour Party member.

One factor in this is that Professor Bain is, at least in part, an outsider. Although he has lived in Britain for 33 years he retains Canadian roots and loyalties and holds dual citizenship: "I have always felt a certain diffidence about becoming involved quite so directly."

Coming to Britain cut off a promising Canadian political career. He was chair of the Manitoba Provincial New Democrat Party at 23, though he emphasises that "any prospect of power by that route was pretty remote".

But there are advantages to being the informed outsider - not least classlessness. And his years of intensive study of Britain have given him a clear view of economic failings: "There has been a stop-go pattern, an inability to think long-term or develop consistent economic policies."

Quoting the observer who defined the commission's aim as "policies which Labour will want to adopt, and the Conservatives will want to steal", he argues: "If the 1960s and 1970s showed us the limitations of the state and furnished numerous examples of state failure, then the 1980s have done the same for the market. The Conservatives have been very good at making a few people rich - and I have no objection to millionaires - but there has been very little trickle-down. Rather than making individuals rich, the objective must be to make the vast majority of the population better off."

He points to the need for "a more fruitful balance between market and social economics". Admitting to a preference, where possible, for private against state action, he says: "The decisive factor has to be whether the risks of government failure are greater than those of market failure."

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